A blue van with lightning bolts painted on it pulled up in front of Brent’s school at lunchtime. The students, being trusting teenagers, crowded around to see what it was. A man and a woman stepped out, dressed in outfits that could only be described as castoffs from a magician’s garage sale.
“Step right up!” the man said, somewhat unnecessarily, since he was in danger of being crushed against the side of his own van. “See the world as you have never seen it before!”
The crowd of middle-schoolers remained silent, seeing where this was going, but the man refused to give details.
“Who will be the first one? Come into the van and we’ll give you the instructions.”
At this point, an adult would have been running in the opposite direction while calling the police, but teenagers are thoughtless and curious: a dangerous combination. After a moment, a girl named Stacy raised her hand.
“Sounds good. What do I have to do?” Stacy was always self-assured and forthright. Some had speculated that she had probably cut her own umbilical cord.
Brent watched with the others as the woman led Stacy into the back of the van. A moment later, she emerged, seemingly unscathed, with a cardboard tube in her hands, like one that comes in a paper towel roll. It had red stars drawn on it in pen.
Stacy held the cardboard tube up to her eye and gasped. “Oh wow.” It sounded like a moan. She slowly moved the tube around and when she turned it on the crowd, she laughed. “This is amazing, guys,” she said.
This reaction caused a ripple of discussion to go through the crowd. Half the students were intrigued; the other half tended towards derision. Brent was in the latter group. It just seemed too absurd, although part of him wanted it to really be something amazing, and not make-believe or a drug trip.
A minute later, Stacy gave the cardboard tube back and grabbed her boyfriend, Tim. “You have got to try this Tim,” she said, cutting off his refusal with an imperious look. She practically pushed him into the back of the van.
The students were captivated now. Tim was one of the most popular boys in school. What would his reaction be? A few minutes later, the van door opened and Tim got out. He held the same tube and put it up to his eye.
He didn’t say anything, but as he looked around, his mouth slowly fell open. The crowd was dead silent. A tear actually rolled down his cheek as he handed the tube back a few minutes later. The students went crazy. Whatever was in that tube, it had made one of the coolest boys in school cry.
There was no shortage of takers now. The man picked a few more and their reactions were even more outrageous. A few laughed or jumped up and down. One just full-on bawled, and kept saying how incredible the sight was.
“We have time for one more,” the man said. “Who will it be?”
Brent found himself raising his hand, although he had not planned to. The man pointed to him and the woman led him into the back of the van.
“Can you keep a secret?” the woman asked. It did not seem a promising beginning to Brent, seeing that he was now alone with her in the back of a van.
“What kind of secret?” Brent asked.
“The biggest kind of secret in the world. The kind you couldn’t tell to your best friend.”
“No, probably not,” Brent said after a while. “I would try, of course, but it if was a big secret, it would probably slip out at some point.” He had a troubling habit of being honest.
“Well, I suspect you could,” the woman said with a smile, “but I appreciate your honesty. Now, go out and look through this tube.” She handed him a cardboard tube decorated in pen with blue stars.
Brent stepped out of the van. Half the crowd had wandered away after hearing that Brent was going to be the last one. The rest of them were staring at him. He put the tube to his eye.
The world disappeared.
The school was gone. In its place was a high castle with strange mountains climbing up behind it. The sky was a dark purple, with coruscating lines of pink running through it. Small, blue creatures like dragons flew around them, landing and taking off nearby. A group of trees was strolling around, having what looked like an animated discussion.
Brent looked back at the van. It was gone. In its place was a woman dressed in a red cloak, sitting on a huge black Pegasus. She smiled at him.
He took the tube down from his eye and the real world flooded back. The students looked unimpressed by his reaction and the crowd started to break up.
“Here you go,” Brent said, handing the tube back to the woman. She held up her hand.
“You keep it. I’ll make another one. My name is Klista, by the way. Remember that.”
The next day, Tim came up to Brent after school. “I saw that they picked you to look into the tube. So, how much did you get?”
“What do you mean?”
“That woman didn’t give you any money?” Tim asked.
“No, did she give you some?”
“Yeah, she brought me into the back and asked if I could keep a secret, so I said yes. She said they were doing an experiment and that she would give me money to go pretend I saw something amazing when I looked through that tube. That’s why I cried. Nice touch, eh? I’m thinking of taking up acting, maybe go in for the school play. Between Stacy and me, we got fifty bucks. You really didn’t get anything?”
“She let me keep the tube,” Brent said.
“The tube?” Tim laughed. “Man, you really got gypped.” He turned and walked away.
Yes, you did, Brent thought.